In the office the mood is tense. I am aware that I have stepped between worlds. Saturated with anticipation for what is about to happen, yet excited by how the room is now in contrast with how it used to be, for what it used to mean. Open plan yet prison cell. Now all the monitors are off, decorations swoon from the ceiling tiles and colleagues have disembarked from their work spaces, breaking cover to sit on the edge of desks and congregate in the aisles, brandishing plastic cups, arms folded or free hands locked in pockets, running through the gamut of conversational tropes that remain not yet quite exhausted but tired, weary, a mutual acceptance that words are required to plug in the gaps. Unshackled from the norms of the environment, the lights lowered and without the ubiquitous glow of the screens, the alcohol pushes us further from familiar shores. By the water cooler, Malik and Jean have replaced the usual syntactic structures of their conversation with something less constrained and before long they are speaking at each other – verb, verb, subject, object and then a flurry of verb, object, subject – but somehow they both become aware that they are communicating more intimately than ever before.
“Clever, isn’t it?” I say, as we both tune in to their conversation.
You nod affirmatively. “Clever but funny at the same time.”
“Mmmm. It’s something you don’t often hear, a syntactical joke. Genius. You need real chemistry to do that and a total understanding of what not to say, it’s hard to pull off, you’ve got to really know what you’re doing…”
We listen a bit longer, watching them as are others, so evidently lost in their communique. It’s then that we realise that Bob and Lisa, from accounts, are using a delay with an increasing lag between the production and audible utterance of each word, with Lisa’s voice also drenched in heavy reverb. Their words are coming in randomly as they alter the frequency of delay and there is so much space in Lisa’s voice it’s as though the entire building itself is speaking. I feel her vowels reverberate through my stomach.
Suddenly, amidst the diffusion of words, applause crackles across the room as Sophie, Ray, Chris and Tanisha materialise near the buffet table. Malik and Jean have now taken things another level up, cutting and pasting morphemes into unrecognisable words with astonishing speed and accuracy.
“It’s all rubbish anyway,” says Kev. “You start to think of language as reflecting the world but unless you wake up and realise they’re all closed systems of their own then you’re just as enslaved by them as you are by the concept of work… Are you truly using language to express yourself or is it the language that is enabling and constraining your thoughts? I say your thoughts, but frankly, that’s not clear either, is it?”
Sophie and the team have been on a reccy. This is the last outpost. The last office team to be relocated before the lease expires and the building is converted to apartments and gym. From somewhere in the catacombs they have snaffled a diverse haul of cacti, high-end laptops and a luxurious leather swivel chair. Ray, Chris and Tanisha are wearing tall party hat crowns fashioned from repurposed corporate signage. While Sophie opens the buffet, Chris and the rest stare hard at the throng, their eyelids wide and determined amongst the applause as sandwiches and cake are crammed into eager mouths as though no-one has encountered food before. An encore of delayed words resumes and Malik and Jean seem to have regressed into echolalia. Simon is telling anecdotes about his old days as an engineer working between buildings, about how he could fox his superiors by accessing secret GPO tunnels beneath the city centre. And then Sophie and the team have gone.
Cate Le Bon
The Deaf Institute